Silly Objections to the Popular Vote

Of late, I’ve been taking an interest in the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. For those who haven’t heard about it, the basic idea is that the US’s system of electing presidents through the Electoral College is archaic and convoluted, and too often doesn’t elect the person who won the most people’s votes.

Since the Electoral College is in the Constitution, it would take a constitutional amendment to get rid of it, and that’s notoriously difficult. However, there’s a workaround: have states allocate their Electoral Votes not to the candidate who won the state’s popular vote, but to the one who won the national popular vote. Yes, it means that if most people in a state vote for candidate A, but candidate B wins the vote nationwide, then that state will allocate its Electoral votes to candidate B. Naturally, it would be crazy for a state to go it alone in this. So this would only kick in once enough states signed up to determine the outcome of the election, i.e., states with 270 Electoral Votes between them.

It sounds weird at first, but it could work. And it’s because it sounds crazy that I’ve started following the issue. But one thing that struck me is just how few good arguments there are against it.

Take, for instance, this letter to the editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

As far as presidential elections go, contenders should learn some things from sports. Know the rules. More importantly, play by the rules. They should broaden their support and try to win more states. They know what the rules are. A contender should need to win more than 11 states (the most populous of which total 270 electoral votes), potentially negating the other 78% (39 states).

For starters, presidential candidates and their campaign managers do know the rules, and do play by them; that’s why they only really campaign in a handful of swing states: everyone knows that, say, New Jersey will vote Democratic no matter what, so the Republicans can just write it off and spend their campaign money elsewhere, where it’ll do more good (i.e., where advertising is likely to get them some more Electoral Votes). The Democrats, meanwhile, can take New Jersey pretty much for granted, and spend their campaign money elsewhere, where it’ll do more good.

Secondly, the author makes a mistake that many opponents of the NPVIC make: that of thinking in terms of states instead of people: states don’t vote; individual voters do. Under a popular vote system, it doesn’t make sense to talk about “how New Jersey voted”, except as a broad trend. The more important question is, how many people in New Jersey voted for each candidate?

Note, too, that the 11 most populous states (also the ones with the most Electoral Votes) are California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan, and New Jersey. The author’s fear lies on the premise of everyone in those 11 states voting the same way. I can’t imagine an election in which everyone in California votes the same way, let alone one where everyone in Texas votes the same way as everyone in California. If a candidate comes along who’s such a uniter that they can get a majority of the vote in those 11 states, then I think that person deserves the presidency.

Furthermore, while those 11 states add up to 270 Electoral Votes, they also have 52% of the population. So what this person is arguing against is the idea of majority rule.

But the biggest mistake this writer makes, in my opinion, is the one I mentioned first: it’s in part because of the Electoral College that presidential candidates only try to win a handful of states and ignore the rest. If he wants them to reach out to, say, Republicans in rural California and New York, or Democrats in Austin and Salt Lake City, then a popular-vote approach is the way to go.

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